Social Entrepreneur Spotlight: Omni Nano

Social Entrepreneur Spotlight: Omni Nano

Welcome to the inaugural entry in our new series: Social Entrepreneur Spotlight!  Every month we will interview a Social Entrepreneur currently active in LA.  To nominate yourself or someone else for a Spotlight segment, contact us!

And now, without further ado, it is our pleasure to introduce Marco Curreli, Founder and CEO of Omni Nano, a nonprofit organization that produces educational material for nanotechnology training since 2012.

What social issue are you working to address? How did you become aware of it and what moved you to action?

Omni Nano focuses on the social issue of improving the underserved science/STEM education in high schools. As nanotechnology will play a central role in the 21st century economy, it becomes critical to introduce a dedicated course as early as high school. There is a recognized correlation between education in science and engineering and innovation and prosperity, worldwide. In 2008, the U.S. graduated only 4% of the world’s engineers; Asia graduated 56%. Omni Nano brings nanotechnology to students early in their formation, when it can most make an impact in how they choose their education and career paths.

Omni Nano was born to address the inadequacies in the education system that I personally experienced throughout my years in academia, such as connecting science topics to up-to-date, real-world applications that keep the students engaged and interested. At the high school level, nanotechnology is usually not offered because there is a lack of education materials (textbook, student guide, quizzes, exams, etc.) comparable in quality to other science electives, such as AP chemistry or AP physics. Because of these factors, students are generally not exposed to nanotechnology as a career until much later or even after having chosen another path.

What is your enterprise’s business model? How does it address the social issue?

Our business model is to become a sustainable organization by providing high-quality, high volume educational material with an affordable cost to the students. The generated revenues will be utilized by Omni Nano to support its developmental activities, including continuous updates to our curricula. We are keeping the cost to disseminate our educational material to a minimum by using primarily electronic delivery (downloadable e-books, etc.). We feel that having a public charity organization (501c3) fits well with our goal of providing quality nanotechnology education to the greatest number of students possible at an affordable cost to the students and their families. Being a charitable organization makes it easy for supporters to believe in the cause of promoting science education instead of pursuing profits.

What has your experience been securing financing for your enterprise at various stages of its existence (start-up, growth)?

Our experience of growing and securing seed funds has been challenging. Initially, outdated school and foundations administrators expressed hesitation toward our innovative program, but as nanotechnology gets more media exposure, Omni Nano is consequently better received and complimented for its program.  The organization is still mainly supported by contributions from its founder. By keeping our fixed costs to a minimum, relying on help from volunteers, family, and friends, we’ve been able to start things off in the right direction even with the minimal funds that have been available. Having so many people pitch in to support with their time, effort, and money feels great, and we’re thankful for all of the help we’ve received so far. As we mature, we look forward to expand our resources through grant applications and donations.

What is the greatest challenge facing your enterprise?

Our greatest challenge thus far has been acceptance, most especially among school and foundation administrators, as we are introducing this relatively new field of science (nanotechnology) into our static educational system. Due to bureaucratic red tape, we have always expected the process of acceptance of nanotechnology curricula into schools to be slow. However, because of the growing importance of nanotechnology in various business and technology sectors, we have been experiencing a growing acceptance in the past few months.

We are initially planning to disseminate nanotechnology education in the Los Angeles area, throughout our Discover Nanotechnology and Bridges to Nanotechnology projects. The former entails offering free workshops to high school students in collaboration with one of their science teachers; the latter brings a two-semester, long term course to the classroom. This class is not currently taught within LAUSD, due to the absence of comprehensive teaching curriculum. Without a full set of teaching materials, teachers must patch together their own notes for the course. That’s a lot of work, and most teachers are not ready to invest such time, which is why Omni Nano is developing curricula and materials to fill this gap. We have found that some schools are excited to be a part of the forefront of education. We have been offering the workshops and many schools have signed up. Also, the forward-thinking administration of the 32nd Street/USC Magnet School partnered with Omni Nano to start teaching nanotechnology to its students starting in January of 2014, as a pilot series of lectures (16 weeks, twice a week) bootstrapped to existing classes.

What has been the most rewarding experience you’ve had since you’ve launched your enterprise?

So far, the most rewarding part has been seeing students’ reactions during my classroom nanotechnology workshops. There’s nothing quite like watching someone’s imagination spark as they learn something completely new and eye-opening. As part of our community service, we offer free introductory nanotechnology workshops to high school science classes, and we’ve put great effort into making the workshops fun and engaging. We focus on providing real world, concrete applications of science that are interesting, engaging, and stimulating curiosity. By the end of the workshop, these young students are so inspired, and I often hear them talking about nano on their way out of class. If there are any high school teachers out there who are interested, please contact us about our free workshops. We’d love to hear from you.

What advice do you have for aspiring social entrepreneurs and/or those that wish to invest in social enterprises?

My main advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs is to make it very clear, to the entire world, how passionate you are about the cause you are embracing. If you are passionate about your cause, then people will feel it and become supportive. Hold onto that passion, no matter how challenging something may seem. Passion will drive your professional relationships with people and inspire them to take action, whether you meet these people through direct networking, social media, or fundraising events.